Jessica Creane and TEDxAsburyPark volunteer Magda Nassar talk about Gamifying Chaos: Embracing Uncertainty Through Play, which will be presented at TEDxAsburyPark on May 18, 2019
Magda Nassar: Hello. This is Expert Open Radio, and I'm Magda Nassar, a member of the TEDxAsburyPark team of volunteers. Today, we're here with Jessica Creane, who is one of the speakers at this year's TEDxAsburyPark Conference on May 18th. She's an artist, designer, instructor, and on and on and on, so I'm going to let her introduce herself. But, before I do that, welcome, Jessica, and thank you very much for joining us.
Jessica Creane: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Magda Nassar: To open things up, we'd love to hear a little bit about yourself, and your background, and why you are called “the most hyphenated person on Earth.”
Jessica Creane: I have to say I borrowed that language from a friend of mine, who was also having trouble describing my existence, and so he started referring to me as a creative multi-hyphenate, and I thought that is easily the best description of my life that I've ever heard.
I grew up in Connecticut, started doing theater at a pretty young age, and kept doing theater and performing while growing up. I lived in New York after graduating from college, worked mostly on new plays, worked a little bit on Broadway and off-Broadway, and I did a lot of directing. I ended up going back to grad school for Devised, Physical Ensemble Theater at the Pig Iron School in Philadelphia. It really taught me that I love improvisation and character development, and so those have been the two strongest threads that I have pulled with me from school, and that also introduced me to game design.
The last class that I took in school was an elective in game design, and the history of games. And that class taught me that this was the missing link in my creative existence, that I really loved doing immersive theater already. I loved creating spaces and giving audiences a place to play and make choices for themselves, but the step that was next in line from immersive theater for me was game design, really crafting these experiences that led audiences through a narrative, that gave them chances to make really meaningful choices within that narrative and within those theatrical spaces.
Magda Nassar: Given that experience, can you tell us a little bit about the topic that you're going to speak about at this year's TEDxAsburyPark event?
Jessica Creane: The title of my talk is “Gamifying Chaos: Embracing Uncertainty Through Play.” I really love turning abstract concepts into games. I think it makes them really accessible and much easier to understand than they are when they're just sort of these unmorphed, crazy, wild, abstract scientific or mathematical ideas.
One of the things that game design does really well is it lets us look at the mechanics of something, and the mechanics are basically just actions. What are the action points of an idea or a system? There are a series of steps or actions that can be taken and you can make a game out of it. Chaos theory is essentially a system, and there are a lot of different factors to that...fractals and self-organization...and the butterfly effect is probably the best known facet of chaos theory. Each of those has an action to it. For instance, the butterfly effect is this idea that one small action, any action like the flapping of the butterfly's wings on one continent, can eventually create a hurricane on another continent.
I started thinking about what that would look like as a game. How could you take this one tiny action and let it just evolve into something wild, over time. The piece that I made, called “Chaos Theory,” is an immersive theater piece that is built on game design, where I take these particular aspects of chaos theory and turn them into games, and then weave them into a broader narrative that the audience gets to participate in over the course of the piece. I knew nothing about chaos theory when I set out to make this piece. It was a lot of research, reading, reading articles and then finding mathematicians who would talk to me about what the formulas of chaos theory actually look like. I would never have been able to do this piece without their help.
Magda Nassar: What inspired you to get into chaos theory and why now?
Jessica Creane: I woke up in November of 2016, day after day, thinking that the world had gone a little mad, and no longer really made as much sense to me as it had even a month before. It felt very much like chaos, that whole month of realizing that the world as I knew it in America, and American politics, had been really upended. And so I figured this chaos is not going away. This feeling of chaos is going to stick around for a good long while now, so I'd better get to know it and figure out what exactly chaos really is and if there's anything that we can do in the world to transform this feeling of chaos, and do something that is more a feeling of agency. How can we turn these feelings of chaos into positive actions?
I started researching chaos and that led me to chaos theory and I realized that there are really two kinds of chaos. There is the feeling of chaos, this feeling that something is wrong, and then there's chaos theory, which is not at all disorganized. It's actually a system. So, I started figuring out if these two things could live together in the same world and in potentially the same immersive theater piece or game or whatever this piece might be. And I found that actually they really meld very well together, that we can actually turn this feeling of colloquial chaos through the systems and mechanics of chaos theory into pretty strong agency and empowerment in participants through games.
Magda Nassar: What's the difference between colloquial chaos and chaos theory?
Jessica Creane: Colloquial chaos is the phrase that I started using to help myself differentiate between these two kinds of chaos. It's kind of the antithesis of chaos theory. Chaos theory is very, very structured. There are rules to it. There are many, many experiments that have been done that say this is exactly what chaos theory is. It is this series of events. Each one leads to the next. It is incredibly orderly. There's not a lot of room for feelings, necessarily, in chaos theory. But, in chaos itself, or what we think of as chaos in society, it’s pure feelings. It is just the sensation that everything is totally out of control. People generally don’t have a positive association with chaos.
Being a little bit of a chaos agent, I find myself drawn to chaotic situations. The work that I'm interested in making is taking that feeling, that moment where you think, "Okay. Here's a chaotic situation. Either I will turn it into order, or I will take myself out of the situation" and instead say, "Oh, chaos might be an opportunity. What can I actually do with the state that we are currently in and how can I use this state to my advantage?" And I think it’s particularly important nowadays, when the whole world sort of feels chaotic, to say, "Okay, I can't change the whole world. The whole world is not going to become orderly and I can't extract myself from the whole world. So, how can I be the most creative and agentic human being that I can be, in circumstances that are in many ways out of my control?" And I think that's what the link is between colloquial chaos and chaos theory...moving from this feeling of chaos, through an orderly system of events. In this case, games based on chaos theory. So that we can go from this feeling of chaos as being uncertainty and fear, into a place where chaos is actually an opportunity. And we can see that there is order within chaotic situations and make the most of them and be able to embody chaos and experience it as a more positive feeling.
Magda Nassar: What's immersive theater, and how do you use it to make your point about gamifying chaos?
Jessica Creane: Immersive theater is a very broad world and it's really sort of an emerging world as well. It's sort of saying that the fourth wall in theater doesn't exist. In a lot of traditional theater, you'll go sit in a seat and actors on a stage will perform as if they are in a completely different world from the audience, and the audience is watching that world. But immersive theater says there is no wall. We are all in the same world, where no one is going to pretend that this is a different reality. Often what that means is that the space that performers and participants (audience members) are in is very different from a traditional theater. Actually, there is a much broader space. Some of the giants of immersive theater are Sleep No More and Then She Fell, which both allow audience members free range in a warehouse space, and they can follow narratives. There are actors in the space and people can either follow these stories and watch actors do certain things, or they can often completely ignore the narrative and just wander around the space and see what comes to them, or they can open up drawers and look in mirrors and open letters, depending on what the space looks like. Immersive spaces tend to be sort of at the heart of immersive theater.
For our piece, for “Chaos Theory,” it's a little bit different because we are actually just asking the audience to be the audience. They don't have to take on a role and they don't have a wide, huge space to explore. They are essentially playing themselves, which is a little bit rare in immersive theater experiences, but if you're looking to transform certain aspects of people's lives, then it's no good transforming a character that they're playing. You want to transform who they really are. Immersive theater essentially gives people the opportunity to make choices within a story, and within a space that they wouldn't necessarily have in a passive theater experience.
Magda Nassar: I attended your performance a couple of days ago. The audience really resonated well with what you ask them to do. Are you going to use immersive theater in your TEDxAsburyPark presentation?
Jessica Creane: I'm pretty sure there will be some game involved. I'm not sure exactly what it will be yet.
Magda Nassar: I read the following statement about your work; maybe you can clarify what you meant by it. You said, "It may feel that we are sliding into chaos, but all too often, we are slipping into an excess of order." Maybe you can clarify for us what you meant by it?
Jessica Creane: Absolutely. I think a lot of the situations that we find ourselves in that feel chaotic make us want to have orderly situations. But as we try to create order, we are actually creating an internal chaos and the more that we attempt to create chaos, the more we realize we're actually creating orderly situations.
I think a good example of this is gendered bathrooms. Gendered bathrooms are set up so that there is a particular order in the world, but actually it creates this internal chaos for a lot of people who don't feel like they fit into either of those norms. So, the more we try and order the world and say this thing goes in this box, and this thing goes in this box, and there is no space in between to be making any other choices. That’s when we, by creating all of these orders in the world, actually find that we are making things much more difficult for ourselves, and creating situations in which we are going to feel internal conflict and uncertainty and chaos, when we can't always adhere to those norms.
I think order is really, in a lot of ways, sort of like a false sense of security. The world is always throwing uncertainty at us. We can either try and block that, with this sense of order and this sense that we can control things, or we can embrace the fact that change is always going to be occurring. That way we don't have to structure quite so many things as long as we can keep rolling with whatever situation comes along.
Magda Nassar: Is there a book or an author you would recommend to our listeners if they want some additional perspective on chaos and your work?
Jessica Creane: I think a book that is super accessible and a really wonderful read about chaos theory is James Gleick's book called Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. That made chaos theory really manageable and exciting to be researching for me. That was my jumping off point for a lot of the research for the piece. I reference it pretty frequently.
Magda Nassar: If members of the audience want to get more engaged with either yourself or your ideas, how might they do that? Are there social media links or a website you can tell them to go to?
Jessica Creane: Yes. My website is my name (jessicacreane.com), and there is a form to get in touch with me there. I absolutely want to be in touch with people. I also have a game company called Ikantkoan, that will lead straight to my game work. I make a lot of games about philosophy and morality and connecting strangers and just creating situations that allow people to connect deeply in the world that is sort of unexpected and strange. They can get in touch with me in either of those ways. I'm a professor. I teach game design and theater and I give talks and lectures and lead game design courses. I like being in touch with excellent humans, no matter what they do.
Magda Nassar: At TEDx we're all about ideas. If I may ask you to conclude by explaining what's the idea that's worth spreading in your May 18th presentation?
Jessica Creane: I think what is really worth spreading is the idea that we can embrace uncertainty through play. That being playful in the face of uncertainty is an option for us and we don't have to be afraid of the unknown, but we can really treat it like a game and say something unknown is coming for us and it's going to be exciting, and we have everything that we need to meet this challenge as long as we meet it with a playful attitude.
Magda Nassar: It’s been really interesting for me to learn about your work, and to meet you. I would like to conclude by saying thank you so much for being with us today. We really appreciate it and are looking forward to your presentation.
You've been listening to Expert Open Radio. Remember to get your tickets for the largest, highest-rated TEDx conference on the East Coast. Again, TEDxAsburyPark is on Saturday, May 18th and you'll have the opportunity to hear Jessica's presentation on “Gamifying Chaos: Embracing Uncertainty Through Play” along with a slate of other speakers talking about chaos.
Read more about Jessica Creane here.
Graphic Created by Kel Grant.